Curious About Cairo?

IMG_3201The capital city of Egypt, Cairo, has 24 million inhabitants. There aren’t a huge number of high rises, so the city is wide spread. Rows upon rows of apartment buildings look like they haven’t been finished yet, with rebar sticking out of the concrete and no glass in the windows. Most buildings have the same colourless, dusty look as the desert on whose fringe the city was built. Thanks to the Nile, there is a green stretch here, too, of agricultural land and palm trees.

The endless traffic creates a smog, not helped by the desert dust, that turns the sky grey by mid day. In the morning we can see pyramids from our 6th floor hotel room but by noon they have faded into the smog. It’s easy to get around by hailing a taxi. But you do need to insist on a meter. As in many Muslim countries, Friday and Saturday is weekend here and taxi fares often increases. The first taxi we tried on Friday morning quoted us 100 Egyptian pounds for a ride we knew would cost 50. We waved him away and the next taxi was indeed 50 EGP.

IMG_3054The first trip we made here was to Giza, to see the ‘real’ pyramids. Those in the Valley of the King are mere mounds and hills, not the pyramids we came to see. Seeing the pyramids all the way from our hotel room in Ma’adi should have told me how big they are. Once our van got closer, I thought it might be disappointing: just some large piles of rocks. But once I stood at the foot of the towering Great Pyramids, I got all choked up. It was overwhelming. I had this amazing feeling of centuries of people who toiled here, who dwelled and worked here. Thousands of years. People rolling stones up the sides. People buildings tombs inside. People selling their wares here, much like is still happening today. Camels lay in the shades while people flocked to the pyramids. It is a whopping 140 meters tall, I felt tiny at the base gazing up. How did they do it, all those centuries ago? I heard that all the rocks of this one pyramid could form a 10’ high wall around the entire country of France…

IMG_3231One of my other favourite places to visit in Cairo was the Khan El Khalili (Kh is a guttural ‘g’ in Arabic so it sounds like Ghan el Gha-lili), We started at the large mosque where families sat in the grass to eat from the tin containers they brought, getting ready to say their prayers. It was about 7 PM and getting dark as we followed the labyrinth of cobblestone streets and alleys. Archways revealed more and more tiny shops. Here you can buy leather, cloths, sponges, copper bowls, old old dial telephones, cotton candy, and anything else you might need. People wore western clothing, or gallibayas, long cotton shirts mostly in light blue or grey. Most women wear head scarves. There’s still a lot of smoking here, even inside restaurants. Smoking a water pipe is also popular. You can sit at a cafe that offers hookahs many flavours – rosewater, hibiscus, etc. I bought a wool carpet (that I now have to fit into my little roll-on bag) and some souvenirs. Then we ate traditional Egyptian food in a wonderful, bustling place with waiters wearing a fez and customers smoking hookahs while listening to traditional wailing music. When we left the souk, around 10 PM, the streets were even more crowded, the families still picnicking and, at an outdoor coffeeshop a group of older men was happily playing music with traditional string instruments and drums. IMG_3212

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Muezzin tops for sale

With tourism down, vendors are desperate for clients. The funniest vendor was during our Nile cruise. Suddenly a tiny row boat appeared next to our cruise ship. A great big Egyptian stood up in his little boat, held up a tablecloth and hollered “Héllo dahling! Want to buy a table cloth?” He ended up bundling it up in a plastic bag and tossed it 5 decks upon, right onto a small table on the upper deck. It was the funniest show you’ve ever seen. Some people on the boat unwrapped it, he threw more, they threw stuff back and eventually he sold something, the money wrapped in the plastic bag and tossed back into the rowboat. The show was probably worth more than the merchandise.

Egypt doesn’t feel like the other African countries I have visited. Neither does it really resemble Middle Eastern countries, except perhaps Pakistan. So I asked several Egyptians “Do you feel your country is African or Middle Eastern?” They looked at me and shook their heads. “We’re neither. We’re Egyptian.” And it seems true that their history and culture is uniquely their own.

We find the people incredibly friendly. Many speak at least some English. They always smile and say “Welcome to Egypt!”. As soon as we tell a taxi driver that we are from Canada, he grins, gives us a thumbs up saying “Ah! Good! Canada – good!”

Traffic in Cairo makes me feel like I’m a pawn in some crazy board game in which each piece (car, bus, donkey cart or motorbike) aims to fill the next empty space. They don’t pay any attention to lines on the road but simply aim for space in the general direction they are headed. If you are in the far left lane and need to go right, you just elbow your way over and try to narrowly miss all of the other vehicles lurging in the same or different directions. They all honk, too. And, weirdest of all, most vehicles turn off their lights at night….

We visited the Egyptian Museum but were not impressed. It felt more like a storage facility than a museum. Rows upon rows of shelves with mummies, statues, carvings, all just lined up but not nicely displayed. There’s no air conditioning. Some displays have an old typed card with information but many treasures just sit behind a smudged window. It’s time the new museum, scheduled for 2020, opens to properly display Egypt’s treasure trove of artifacts. IMG_3319

In Cairo we also had the pleasure of going out for a night on a felucca. These traditional, flat bottom boats have one large triangular sail. By hoisting or lowering it, the boatsman gets where he wants, slowing tacking up and down the waters of the Nile. We watched the lights of Cairo by night as we ate shaved meat with yogurt and hummus and deep fried strips of aish baladi, traditional pita bread. As the warm air hugged us and the sounds of Cairo’s crazy traffic faded, we felt very grateful to have been able to visit this unique country and its beautiful people.IMG_3120

Pharaohs and Temples

IMG_2643The number of temples, the names of pharaohs, the dates of construction and discoveries – it’s making my head spin. Egypt’s history is beyond anything I’ve seen before. Even if the carvings are similar to those I’ve seen at Angkor Wat or Aztec temples, these Egyptian monuments predate everything. I’ve never before been inside a 4,000 year old building. 

IMG_2992During the cruise on the Nile we visited the temples of Karnak and Luxor. At Karnak, gigantic pillars tower over the visitors. It’s a huge temple complex and we walked around the sphinxes and columns and walls with hieroglyphs. We visited here both in the day time and at night while a light show gave details on the era. It was interesting but I wouldn’t highly recommend the light show. As an archeological site, Karnak was one of the most impressive though.IMG_2668

Luxor, too, had interesting sites. I’m surprised at how different each ancient site is. Some have columns, others just facades. Some have tombs and others are a different kind of monument. In the fabled Valley of the Kings we walked around in the blazing heat and made the trek down into some of the tombs. The long narrow walk way was so low that we had to move bend over. I kept my arms over my head to protect myself from bumping my head on the low stone ceiling. But at the bottom it opened up to a large room which held the sarcophagus. I kept wondering what it would have been like to discover these amazing tombs and their guilded treasures. IMG_2823

Construction of the tomb was started as soon as a pharaoh ascended the throne. If he lived a long life it might get finished but often they had to rush unexpectedly when he died young. The hieroglyphs on the walls leading into and all over the temple, tell the king’s life story and of his heroic deeds. Everything that the king might need in his next life was provided: furniture, tools, food. The spirit had to recognize his body, so the outer sarcophagus was lifelike. The mummified body was inside several different caskets. The whole thing is pretty mind boggling. The model of hidden tombs at Valley of the Kings gives a good idea of the magnitude of the tombs and how secret passageways led all over the place. images

In the Valley of the Kings, pyramids were built as mastaba’s – benches. They are lower mounds of stone. In the period that these were built, pharaohs did not want it knowns where their graves were for fear of grave robbers. Later, the great pyramids of Giza became the iconic symbols for pyramids, including the Djoser Pyramid at Saqqara, built in the 27th century BC.

IMG_2857The temple of Queen Hatshepsut is visible from Karnak. It honestly looks like a huge modern building but dates back to some 1,460 years BC. I believe that all, or almost all temples holding tombs are on the west bank of the Nile. This is because the sun sets in the west and ancient Eqyptians believed that the sun died each night, to be reborn in the east. So the west bank of the Nile is the ‘death’ side and all life took place on the east bank.

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Sunset on the Nile

Tourism is way down in Egypt. Our guide told us that before 2011, long line ups stood outside the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Now there were some tourists but no line-ups and I was able to take photos without too many people in the way.  As at all major tourist attractions, there are plenty of vendors around. In Egypt bartering is not just a way to get the price down. It is an art form and part of the culture. With the lack of tourists, vendors are pretty desperate and incredibly persistent. They held up cloths and necklaces in our faces, walking along, yelling, sometimes even grabbing our arm. They did not easily take ‘no’ for an answer and it often took the intervention of our guide to get rid of them.

In one area, tour guides were asked not to block the way by speaking to their group in front of the entrance. The English translation of this sign left a bit to be desired… IMG_2869

We do get a chuckle out of many English signs. It’s amazing they don’t get them proof read, especially official signs in official places. There are spelling mistakes in airplanes (a note to “pasangers”), in restaurants (on our menu are “wuffles” and “beanutbutter”) and many other places.

The Gift of The Nile

“Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”  ( Herodotus)

Upon our return to Aswan (population 2 million) from Abu Simbel in the southern tip of Egypt, we were delivered to our cruise boat. These cruise boats do not resemble western cruise ships. Rather, they are large flat bottom boats with about 5 decks stacked like an oval shaped wedding cake. A gang plank led to a large glass door through which we entered a two storey tall lobby with stained glass ceiling. From here a curved wooden staircase led down to the dining room and up to two decks of cabins, as well as an outer deck with swimming pool and easy chairs. IMG_2554

Our cabin was a lovely room with kingsize bed, two easy chairs, a small fridge, a bathroom and a balcony with two chairs. The total fare for a 4 day cruise, including all food except drinks, all sightseeing, all entrance fees for archeological sites, a private guide (which we had not realized until it happened), and all transportation to and from the boat, came to about 600 US for both of us. 

The capacity of the Sonesta Moon Goddess, our ship, was 225 people but we cruised with only 40 people on board, an illustration of how tourism has declined across Egypt. At major sites, our guide would sigh “There used to be long line-ups here to enter the tomb,” but now we walked right up and often were one of just a few visitors. Most of our photos show no other people.

IMG_2559We had no idea that our fabulous guide from Abu Simbel would accompany us for the entire trip. He had a room on the ships and also ate all meals there with other guides. Guides can speak a wide variety of languages: we heard Spanish, French, Italian, German and more. Ours was a very knowledgable guide who had taught many of the younger ones, had a wicked sense of humour and knew everything! IMG_2611

Soon we set sail on the Nile. Egypt is a bit of an upside down country! The south is called Upper Egypt, the north is Lower Egypt. The Nile, longest river in the world, flows from south to north. Thus you travel upstream to go south and down stream to go north. Confusing. 

The names and dates of gods, pharaohs, ancient sites and temples have my head spinning. There’s no way I can accurately tell you what happened when and to whom, so you’ll have to check out specific events or places online. 

The boat sailed fairly fast north with the strong current. We saw Elephantine Island near Aswan and soon green strips with corn fields and palm trees streaked past. Little barefooted children came running down muddy slopes yelling “Hello! Hello!”, waving furiously. We saw cows and goats and dogs. And lots of cats. Of course, Egypt is the land of the mysterious cat and they dwell everywhere in great numbers. We listened to the melodious call of prayers floating on warm wafts of air as we sailed by. Men led donkeys to the river to drink and women hung laundry and blankets from glass-less windows. In larger towns, houses are build of bricks but often houses are the same colour as the local mud.

This very southern region of Egypt is part of the land where the original people lived, the Nubians. They are more African looking and speak their own language.

IMG_2614Without the river Nile, Egypt would be all desert. One broad strip of green runs the length of the country along either side of the river. From the air, the strip looks to range from a few hundred feet to a couple of kilometres wide. Before the dam this was the river’s natural flood plane where fertile silt was deposited with each flood. Since the dam, water is regulated but chemical fertilizer is now needed to grow grain, fruits an vegetables. The dam created Lake Nasser, which hosts about 30,000 crocodiles. All crocs were eliminated from the river itself so that people can once again use it for washing, swimming and leading their cattle to drink.

IMG_2638Our boat docked, together with several other river boats, immediately opposite the Temple of Kom Ombo where it is believed are the very first depictions of medical tools in the hieroglyphs. We also stopped at Edfu where we rode a horse drawn carriage to the temple. I was impressed by the size and height (37 meters) of the temples. Even though this temple was constructed in the century before Christ, it looks newly made from fresh cement. This is because often these temples were completely buried in sand and thus protected from the elements. I always thought that few, faded hieroglyphs were found and am blown away to see every inch of these gigantic monuments covered in letters and pictures that are as clear today as they were 4,000 years ago…

https://www.sonesta.com/africa/nile-cruises/sonesta-moon-goddess-nile-cruise-shiphttps://www.sonesta.com/africa/nile-cruises/sonesta-moon-goddess-nile-cruise-ship

Our guide: masteregyptologist@gmail.comIMG_2630

Abu Simbel: Traveling Back in Time

IMG_2530Egypt. Fabled land of sphinx and pyramids, of the river Nile and Cleopatra. I didn’t think I’d ever visit here. But – thanks to my books My Librarian is a Camel, the story of libraries around the world, and thanks to Stepping Stones, the story of a refugee family – I received an invitation from an international school in Cairo to come and do author presentations for the students.

Of course, that was an opportunity to plan some travel in Egypt. But where do you start and what is possible?

We started by getting books from the library, including travel guides. We also borrowed several DVD’s, even a copy of the classic Cleopatra movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. We visited the Egypt exhibit in the BC Museum and read many nonfiction books.

Then we delved into travel sites like Tripadvisor to read about other people’s experiences. We like to travel on our own rather than with a tour group so we started by counting the days we had to decide where to go. 

IMG_2522Arriving in Cairo, we connected immediately to a flight to Aswan, in the south of Egypt. We knew we would arrive very late, around midnight. After much research I found the perfect itinerary: booking.com showed a Nile cruise of 4 days leaving Aswan on a Wednesday and ending in Luxor. The rate was very reasonable and so I booked it, even though a Cairo travel agency insisted there was no such cruise from south to north. Research paid off.  

Prior to sailing, the boat offered an excursion to Abu Simbel, ancient temples in the very southern tip of Egypt on the border with Sudan. We really wanted to see that sight so we booked it but would be picked up at 5 AM. Since we arrived at midnight, I searched for a cheap hotel and found one for about 30 euros. It was cheap but clean and they even had a breakfast box ready for us when we left. The van for our trip south showed up early, at 4 AM when we were still sleeping, so it was a mad dash.

But soon we found ourselves on our way south through the western reaches of the Sahara Desert. After the Aswan Dam the road was long and boring. We dozed for 3 hours but by the time we arrived it was light and still relatively cool. We walked around a mount and suddenly there were there: four gigantic statues, 20 meters tall, the sitting figures of Pharaoh Ramesses II, carved more than 1,200 years before Christ. IMG_2490The sheer size and precision of the decorations is awe inspiring. The temples are dedicated to Ramesses and his wife Nefertari, (our guide called them Ramsex and Never-tired because they had something like 42 kids…) who is shown here in the same size as him, a big exception. In most places the females are depicted much smaller than the males. Besides the incredible exterior, you can enter the temples. I had always pictured these ancient temples as small and dark. But on the contrary, they are huge and light. At 30 meters high, the ceilings and walls are entirely covered in hieroglyphs. Having seen cave paintings in Australia and many other places, I imagined that hieroglyphs would be the same: a few found here and there, small and faded. But no – these hieroglyphs look as if they were carved yesterday. They cover the entire walls and tell stories that jump right off the ‘page’. Even if you can’t read the letters and words, the pictures are clear: they pay tribute to the good life of the pharaoh and what he did. You see people fishing, specific fish that are recognizable to this day. They carry pots and fruits. They dance and pray. You can see the clothing they wore and who they met. It is incredible. IMG_2516

These temples and statues at Abu Simbel would have been lost forever when the dam was build that now forms Lake Nasser. So, thank goodness, the authorities had the entire site moved from down below to up high. With painstaking precision, with cranes and helicopters, the sandstone was secured and hoisted up to a level that would be well above the water level.

The lake was created and now is home to some 30,000 crocodiles. But Abu Simbel’s temples continue to stare across the land, more than 3,000 years after they were conceived.

We were lucky to be assigned an amazing guide from Abu Simbel to Luxor. His name is Mr. Hamed. He is a master egyptologist, can read hieroplyghs like we read our alphabet. He knows everything and taught most guides here. If you ever come to Egypt, book him: masteregyptologist@gmail.com

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Santorini: the Icing on the Greek Cake

IMG_2406We tore ourselves away from our lovely little hotel in Naxos (pronounced Nachos) with its blue and white veranda, where we had fresh orange juice and coffee by the pool. And stood in line like cattle with hundreds of other tourists waiting for the Blue Star ferry to take us to Santorini.

These ferries are comfortable with nice sitting areas, restaurants and floor to ceiling windows. Why is the water here so blue compared to the grey waters of our Pacific? Is it simply the reflection of the sky? When I google for this, I am told it is because the Aegean Sea does not support algae growth… Interesting.

Greece_GRE.aiThe 3 hour ferry ride took us to the the island of Santorini. The crescent shape island is part of a circular chain that, together, used to form the round top of a volcano until, some 3,000 years ago, the top blew, the crater edge was formed and the crater itself filled with the sea.

Now the island rises sharply out of the sea. Picture 2/3 of a bundt cake, 1/3 cut away and crumbled up, cinnamon coloured. Then picture white icing dripping over the top and edges. That is Santorini. The white icing is a thick layer of Greek adobe style houses, walkways and churches, all desperately clinging to the edge or else they’d tumble into the sea on either side. 

We had seen Oia’s (pronounced E-Ah, like the call of the donkeys you can ride here) sunset walk on documentaries but it was pretty awesome to walk there in person. The walk way is narrow, slippery marble and lined with souvenir shops. We ignored the tourists and drank in the amazing views of steep rocky cliffs straight down to the sea.

IMG_2436We had coffee overlooking the blue sea on both sides with the iconic white churches with their blue domes along the path. I noticed a lovely little hotel right there along the sunset walk. When I googled it later I found out that rooms there start at 800 euros a night. Holy… who stays there? We are very happy with our little hotel with a blue pool and tiny kitchen. At a fraction of that cost!

The best part is that our room, booked through AirBnB came with a free car. Usually, I don’t trust that word “free” but when I checked prices of nearby rooms without a car they were indeed about the same price. It’s wonderful to have a car here since there’s quite a bit to explore. We drove to Oia on the opposite side of the island and explored some back roads. Kees bravely turned left when I suggested it, plunging down a narrow, winding road that brought us down to the east side of Santorini. Low and behold we found our way back to the town of Perissa where we stay, via a nice supermarket. 

We walked a stoney path to a small blue and white Greek restaurant and savoured every moment on the patio as the sun set and Greek guitar music played. The steep hillside has twinkling lights along a path that leads to a tiny white chapel carved into the rock. I feel like Meryl Streep will come around the corner any moment, singing Mama Mia!

IMG_2443Santorini is half the size of Salt Spring Island where we live. But, according to the statistics I can find, it has 125,000 permanent residents and up to 2 million visitors per year (in 2014). Salt Spring has slightly more than 10,000 people and does host a fair number of tourists but not nearly that of Santorini. We often feel that the island “is full” in summer when traffic glogs the main roads, the market it crowded and there are not enough accommodations for all the visitors. No wonder then that Santorini is really coping with huge problems. There is not enough water, the roads are full of potholes and overnight places are at a premium (I heard about houses on the caldera going for 5000 euros a night – who would pay that?!).

There are small metal signs attached to shops and homes that says “You are visiting here but we live here, please respect our privacy and property”. I sure hope it won’t come to that on Salt Spring but perhaps it is time to look at how similar tourist attractions cope. According to recent headlines “Amsterdam is now actively discouraging tourism”. There might be lessons learned there about promoting places to visit, no matter how difficult that might be if you only focus on the money to be made.

IMG_2430Leaving Santorini, we took the Sea Jet ferry. Blue Star Ferries was a lot nicer, with space to walk and nice sitting areas. Sea Jet is much like an airplane, with assigned seats and no place to walk. It was a long 6 hour journey back to Athens. All of the islands along the way looked identical: brown barren rock, almost no vegetation and very dry. I’m sure there are more beautiful islands in northern Greece. We did enjoy coming here and seeing the sites but all in all I had pictured Greek islands very differently from what we saw: interesting history, lovely people, great climate but dry and rocky, no shade and barren rock.

Our hotel on Naxos: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/2912686?eal_exp=1527871304&eal_sig=bad764eae73e61fae3bed9b899fde1dd2ce2d27a2f8e50d289d0320b2a320e39&eal_uid=7636528&eluid=0&euid=7171522b-06d4-4506-9bfb-cacba5a494bd

https://www.bluestarferries.com/en/  

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For my illustrator friends: this is believed to be the first piece of art ever to be signed by an artist.

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How do you operate a washing machine in Greek?!

All photos ©margrietruurs

It’s All Greek…

Listening to Greek spoken all around me, I find that it sounds like a blend of Italian, Spanish with a hint of Russian. I can’t get over the signs with Greek announcements. No idea what they offer but the length of the words is fascinating.

Names, too, are longer than names elsewhere: Constantinides Oikonomopoulos is an example of a common name. Our guide for the day has shortened his name, for the sake of tourists, to Cosmos but it was four times longer than that.… Our driver’s name is Nikos. That one I can remember.

IMG_2356We leave the hotel again at 5 AM. This the taxi actually does take us to the port of Piraeus and the ferry actually does sail today.  The nation wide port strike is over. The ferry blows me away. ‘Greek ferry’ always conjured up images for me of the overcrowded ferries in Burma, where people vied for every square inch on outer decks to spread their mats and huddle along railings with their basket full of vegetables, roses, tobacco leafs and roots. The Greek ferries, however, are towering cruise ships. Shiny floors and glittering chrome everywhere, smiling men in uniforms welcome us aboard and point us towards comfy chairs in air conditioned lounges. BC ferries take note! Leather chairs and cozy sitting arrangements everywhere, shiny clean windows from floor to ceiling, even in the bathrooms. A few elderlyIMG_2359 Greek women stretch out on a couch, snoring away. An Orthodox man in black robe and cap stumbles by, leaning heavily on his carved cane. But most are tourists swaying under the weight of their enormous backpacks, or dragging wheelies up the gangplank. We sip hot coffee as we glide on a blue sea towards our first Greek island: Naxos.

And soon it appears, a cluster of bright white houses huddled along the shore of a brown rocky island, bathed in bright sunlight.

Our hotel, booked through AirBnB, is perfection. Not a luxurious or glamorous hotel but a lovely small Greek family hotel. The bright white apartments have the typical Greek blue doors and shutters and surround a sparkling blue pool. Dark red bougainvilleas cascade over balconies. Even the doves on the powerlines are brilliant white.

We have a cool white room with light blue furniture and a kingsize bed. There’s a plate of fresh grapes and peaches waiting for us. The hotel owners even pick us up at the ferry with our name on a sign. We’re impressed and it takes the hassle out of finding out how to get to the hotel in 34º heat.

IMG_2366Close to the hotel is a large supermarket so we stock up on staples, freshly squeezed orange juice, jam, coffee. Kees walks to the bakery each morning to pick up fresh croissants. Ah… what a treat. We eat on our own balcony in the shade by the pool. And swim… 

We explored Naxos on foot. We walked all the way from our hotel, through winding streets full of little restaurants, coffee shops and stores, to the old town. Old Town is a labyrinth of streets no wider than a meter or so. The white washed walls leans against each other. Wooden balconies cling to the stone in desperation. They are constructed of what looks like driftwood and stones and must be many hundreds of years old. We climb steadily on steep streets or staircases until we reach the catholic church at the top. A stone tower makes it look like the old fortress it once was. Along the way we see many cats who slink in the shadows. IMG_2374

Back down, we spot the sparkling sea and the large, iconic rectangle called Temple of Apollo. It looks exactly like the rectangular frame of the National Geographic covers and is all that is left standing of an ancient temple. We walked out onto the rocky spit and walk around it for a good view of Naxos through this ‘frame’. Then we walked back all the way along the shore, where crowded tourist shops and sunscreen slathered tourists vie for space. We eat perfect moussaka under the stars. Back in our quiet little resort, we are the only ones in the pool. What a perfect spot. The only problem here is that we don’t want to leave… IMG_2398

Oracles and Miracles

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Road to Delphi

I wonder if the Oracle of Delphi could have predicted that we would show up, unplanned.

We got up at 5 AM (!) to follow our days in Athene with a ferry ride to our first island: Mykonos. We had carefully researched and selected three of the nearly 2,000 Greek Islands. Our choices were based on geography: they had to be near Athene because of our limited time. We watched travel shows to find a variety of size and landscape. 

As we had arranged with our AirBnB hosts, we left the key on the table and pulled the door locked behind us. We stepped into the still dusk alley and walked over, with our luggage, to a hotel around the corner from where we hailed a taxi to take us to Piraeus, the busy harbour of Athens. 

“No ferries!” announced the taxi driver, “National strike!” I had heard rumours of a one day strike on Monday but this was Tuesday. Surely our ferry would take us to the island? But no, inside the hotel our fears were confirmed. So if the ferries don’t go, you can’t reach the hotel you booked. And thousands of other tourists can’t leave so hotel rooms will be at a premium. What to do?

In cases like this I find that the ‘Serenity Poem’ always works: ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Or, in the words of our Greek guide we would meet later: “things ghahppen that will ghahppen”.

First we decide to ensure that we have a place to sleep in Athens for the next two nights and book a hotel via Orbitz. No problem.

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Delphi

Then we take a taxi to that hotel, leave our luggage (because it was only about 8 AM, too early to check in), use their wifi and walk to the travel agency through whom we had booked our Greek ferries. Thank goodness I had decided that booking it myself was too complicated. We always book everything ourselves but this time we are grateful we didn’t. AFEA Travel was amazing. They wasted no time in cancelling our first ferry ticket, hopefully to get a refund. They contacted our hotel in Mykonos to confirm we couldn’t make it. They re-booked a ferry for a few days later from Athens to our next island: Naxos. And then they booked us for a full day excursion to Delphi. All is well again. We are grateful that so many people here speak good English and that all we encounter are kind and helpful. (www.afea.gr)

That night we marvel at the sight of the Parthenon, as the sun set over the Aegan sea, and look forward to a totally new plan: learning all we can about oracles and mythology.

I love being in the very place where Zeus ruled the world, where Apollo reigned and where Hercules flexed his muscles. History is tangible here, the ‘story’ part of the word being especially applicable. Everything is stories.   Where we come from, what it looks like, how it was. Even the language is rich in history and meaning.

Did you know that you speak Greek every day? Words like forum, gymnasium, marathon, spartan, stadium, atlas, even the word phone all come from Greek. And well known brand names, too, like Nike, Amazon and Olympus all come from Greek.

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Delphi is the ‘navel’ of the earth

On the way to Delphi, our guide tells wonderful stories about battles with giants and cyclops, about gods and their confusing offspring, one of them marrying his own mother. Delphi is a two hour drive north of Athens on the mainland, in the mountains and was believed to be the navel of the flat earth. We drive through green fields, sparse forests and picturesque villages. 

Delphi was a bustling place about 2,500 years ago. The original artifacts that have been found around the remaining ruins are now housed in a nearby museum. The marble statues, gold decorations and bronze castings are impressive and represent the humans who lived and worked here so many thousands of years ago. 

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Oracle of Delphi….

The Oracle was fascinating. Apollo ruled here as god and the female oracle was believed to be his direct connection to the people. I find it much better to buy into this belief than to think of the more realistic alternative: the woman selected to be the voice of the gods, was kept high on methane and chewed intoxicating leafs. Her incoherent mumblings were interpreted by three poets who tried to relay them as sensible, poetic lines.

Really? The future of the world was determined by a woman who was stoned and by three men who liked words?

But despited being high, the Oracle was apparently able to predict future events. She was consulted, and proven to be correct, by many travellers from far away. The way she predicted what would happen, make it sounds like Delphi was a kind of CNN or BBC headquarters of the ancient world.

However, they had a kind of a blanket statement that meant ‘use these predictions at your own risk’ – whatever the Oracle told you, you had to use your own common sense to interpret it. One god was told he would destroy a mighty land. He did, but hadn’t realized it was his own land…

No matter how you look at it, the Oracle of Delphi is an impressive part of the history of mankind. 

What I find particularly fascinating, having traveled to many interesting places, is that all peoples throughout history, in far flung places, seem to have come up with very similar stories. The cave paintings of Australia’s aboriginal people, the stories of the Aztec, those of the Haida, the carvings at Angkor Wat, all resemble similar stories. Here in Delphi we learn about a Greek myth about rain that washed away mankind except for two whose task it was to repopulate the world after their boat stranded on a mountain top and the rains receded….

Perhaps the saddest story I learned today was the fact that Aesop lived here. He was a slave but earned his freedom by his amazing storytelling powers. We saw names of people carved in marble, listing those who obtained their freedom, apparently his name was recorded here, too. Aesop happily went on telling stories as a free man. Until the Greeks decided they did not like the tales he told and pushed him to his death from a mountain top. So much for freedom of speech and censorship.

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From Athena to Zeus: sightseeing in Athens

IMG_2119Even though we are pretty experienced travellers – Greece is my 52nd country – planning our time in Greece has been daunting. In most countries or cities there are a few major attractions that you know you ought to see. 

But the sights of Greece are pretty overwhelming… In a country with this kind of history, what do you want to see in a few days? And how do you get around?

Our base for planning this trip was a three day conference in Athens. We decided to follow the conference with two full days in Athens to see the Acropolis, the Parthenon and other major sites in the city. And then we would select 3 islands for a taste of island hopping.

We checked out a pile of Greece guides: Lonely Planet and other books, Rick Steves’ DVD’s, fly over DVD’s that showed all the attractions. And we got even more overwhelmed… How do you decide which islands to visit when there are 1,800 islands?

IMG_2209We decided to determine the Athens sightseeing once we got there, which turned out to be a good move. In the books, I couldn’t even find out the difference between The Acropolis and The Parthenon. Maybe that is obvious once you’ve been here, but not while you are planning… We needed Athens 101 advise…

We started by booking an AirB&B close to the conference center. It turned out to be walking distance, easily reached by Metro from the airport, and very close to the heart of the city. For less than half the cost of a hotel room, we had 2 rooms and a kitchen in a very quiet apartment building: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/19603934 Next door was a lovely taverna where we sat outside on the balcony under the grape leafs to enjoy wine, Greek salad and freshly grilled chicken for 11 euros.

We soon learned that the Metro is easy to use: you buy a 90 minute ticket for E1.40 and clear maps show you how to reach your destination, from the airport to the port of Piraeus and many stops in between. Two stops from “our” Metro station was the Acropolis and the old city part called Plakka. https://www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com/athens/combo-hop-on-hop-off-classic-tour-of-athens_29715

The Metro is fast, efficient and cheap. The ticket machines have buttons for many different languages that talk you through the process. But beware: pick-pockets hang out in the Metro. A friend from Canada had his passport and wallet stolen on his first short ride!

To get a better idea of the attractions and their locations, we bought a two day pass for Athen’s Hop-On Bus. For 14 euros we could ride unlimited and get guided walking tours. First we took the bus and simply stayed on it for the two hours it took to drive its loop around the city. Map in hand, that gave us a clear idea of what was where and what we wanted to see. 

IMG_2156Then we strolled all over the myriad of cobblestone alleys that is old  Plakka, enjoyed lunch on a shaded green square (it was 36º each day in September!) and watched the changing of the guard at the Government Building. We didn’t realize til later that we were very lucky to see this on a Sunday: the guards wear their traditional Greek outfits with white skirts only on Sunday. We walked through the National Gardens and visited the stadium where the first of the modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The next morning we left our apartment early. Rather than take the Metro (2x 1.40 euro) we took a taxi which dropped us off at the path that leads up to the Acropolis for 4.50 euro. Taxis are cheap in Athens, and plentiful. Most of the drivers speak English. They have to use their meters and will give you a receipt.

In the cool of the morning we set off to walk the slopes of the Acropolis. You need to buy a ticket to do so. The 20 euro ticket was the most expensive we paid for any admission in Greece but also contributes to the mind blowing renovations of this thousands years old attraction. We learned that The Parthenon is the iconic rectangle of pillars on top of the mountain. The entire site, including smaller temples and what used to be a city, is referred to as the Acropolis. IMG_2218

Going early in the morning helped to not have crowds in our photos. We were able to take many photos without hordes of tourists obstructing our view. We walked all the way around the top of the mountains and enjoyed reading the interpretive signs. We were back down by 11 AM and then went to the modern, air conditioned Acropolis Museum. This houses many of the original statues and tableaus that were removed from the Parthenon and are being renovated here. Gorgeous museum with great views of the real site. Entrance fee is 5 euros. If you go later in the day, it is a good idea to buy your ticket online to avoid wasting time by standing in a long queue: https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en

After lunch in Plakka, we took the Hop-On bus to the National Library. Unfortunately it was closed due to a move.

When visiting Athens, be sure to wear comfortable, flat shoes. You’ll do lots of walking, up and down hills, and the sidewalks are often broken and uneven. They are also very slippery because much of it is slabs of marble or smooth tiles.

IMG_2271The Greek word graphein means “to scratch, draw, write”. Wall writing is  found in many ancient places, but the habit was especially popular among the Romans. No wonder then that Athens is the capital of graffiti! I have never seen so much graffiti in any city! At times it seemed that every available square inch that can be reached from the sidewalk, is covered in paint. Often this graffiti is art – but it does seem a bit much when every wall, door, lamp post and sign is covered in swirls and letters. IMG_2275

Food is expensive in tourist areas like Plakka. But as soon as you venture into a regular neighbourhood where locals live, there are plenty of little supermarkets and fruit stands. You can buy amazing tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and grapes. And of course Greek yogurt and cheese is the best for a simple, affordable lunch.

One of my favourite nights, so far, was spent eating on the rooftop of a hotel and watching the sunset. Slow as molasses, it turned the Parthenon from yellow to orange to pale beige. Then we watched as, slowly, the lights came on and the ancient temple towered over the city in orange and green light.

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Hiking Historic Skating Route

IMG_0131The Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour) is a historic long-distance skating tour event, almost 200 kilometres (120 mi) long, which is held both as a speed skating competition (with 300 contestants) and a leisure tour (with 16,000 skaters!). It is held in the province of Friesland in the north of The Netherlands, leading past all eleven historical cities of the province. The tour is held at most once a year, only when the natural ice along the entire route is at least 15 centimetres (6 in) thick; sometimes on consecutive years, other times with gaps that may exceed 20 years if the winter is not cold enough. When the ice is suitable, the tour is announced and starts within 48 hours.

There has been mention of skaters riding to all eleven cities of Friesland on one day since 1760. The Elfstedentocht was already part of Frisian tradition when, in 1890, Pim Mulier conceived the idea of an organized tour, which was first held in 1909 when 22 men competed. After this race, the Vereniging De Friesche Elf Steden (Association of the Eleven Frisian Towns) was established to organize the event.

The winters of 1939/40, 1940/41 and 1941/42 were particularly severe,  with the race being run in each of these years. The 1940 race, run three months prior to the German invasion of the Netherlands, saw over 3,000 competitors start at 05:00 on 30 January, with the first five finishing at 16:34. The event dominated the front pages of Dutch newspapers. 

DSCN0078The Elfstedentocht of 1963 became known as “The hell of ’63” when only 69 of the 10,000 participants were able to finish the race, due to the extremely low temperatures of -18 °C, powder snow and a harsh eastern wind. Conditions were so horrendous that the 1963 winner, Reinier Paping, became a national hero, and the tour itself legendary. Paping could not make out the finishing line as he was snow blind by the end of the race, and many of the contestants had frostbite, broken limbs, and damaged eyes. 

My dad participated 5 times in the tour (’29, ’33, ‘39, ‘40 and ‘41). I don’t know how many of those 5 he finished, but I have several ‘kruisjes’ the medal that is given to those who finish the tour in one day. 

In 2017 the NIVON, the Dutch organization that develops and manages long distance paths in The Netherlands announced the creation of the Elfsteden path as hiking trail. It follows as closely as possible the route the skaters take, but since (despite wearing wooden shoes) even the Dutch cannot walk on water, the land route is considerably longer: 285 kilometers. 

The terrain is beautiful, although somewhat monotonous, flat, wide open spaces, lots of canals, rivers and large lakes. The Montana car license motto “Big Sky Country” would apply very well to Friesland.

So how do you start a 300 km hike? Well, like eating an elephant, 1 bite at the time you start with 1 step at a time. I had arrived in Leeuwarden, the 2018 Cultural Capital of Europe. There I visited the Esher Museum and saw a parade of 15 meter tall giant marionettes. IMG_0130

And stayed overnight in jail! ( more about that later).

Dutch bakeries are the best in the world, so I had delicious croissants and strong coffee for breakfast and was ready to hit the road, or the trail in this case. 

The start of the trail is on the edge of downtown, however due to the preparations for a celebration the following weekend the official starting point with the statue of a skater was closed off. I left town and headed down the route. It could not really be called a trail, because as I would discover in the following days and weeks, the route uses existing roads and bikepaths for probably 90% of the time, which meant that you ended up walking on pavement or concrete most of the way.

DSCN0080In my case walking on hard surfaces is much harder on my feet then soft surface forest trails. The weather was perfect so no need to complain and even if I did complain there was nobody listening to it anyway. As I noted earlier, the terrain that you find in western Friesland is interesting, but somewhat monotonous. Wide open spaces, green fields, either with cows ( the famous Fries’ cattle) or agriculture, mostly corn, for cattle feed during the winter. But also numerous creeks, rivers, canals, lakes and other bodies of water. No wonder this type of terrain invites skaters during cold winters. The 300 km were roughly divided into daily distances of 18 to 25 km. Not a problem, but I quickly discovered that because of the Dutch summer holidays it was difficult to find overnight addresses. As a result, on several occasions I had to take a bus or train to a city 25 km further down the route to find places to stay overnight. Right after the first day of hiking that happened, so I took the train to the city of  Sneek and the next morning took the train back to where I had left off. 

IMG_0136Oh, about the jail, yes I was in jail for the first 2 nights in Holland, but this old jail had been converted to a youth hostel, so you fortunately got your own key to you own personal jail cell. Bars on the windows, heavy metal doors that closed behind you with a thud and the lock would fall in place with a grinding noise. On the last night back in Leeuwarden at the end of the hike I stayed there again: https://alibihostel.nl/en/

In addition to the 200 km skating tour/race there is also a 250 km biking route and now the 300 km hiking route. However, while I hiked the first 2 days, a Dutchmen, who happens to be the Olympic champion open water swimming, SWAM the entire route without stopping. He did that to bring attention to the need for funding for cancer research and managed to raise over 5 million Euros during and after his swim. He did not quite make it the 200 km because after about 160 km a doctor ordered him out of the water because he had been swimming for 36 hours without a rest and he became a danger to himself. When I left Sneek on the third day of the hike he had passed by that city only an hour before me, the next city IJlst I was still only 15 minutes behind him and in Balk that evening I finally caught up with him. 

The 4th of the official eleven cities was Sloten, just like Leeuwarden, IJlst and Sneek these are 500-600 year old cities. Narrow streets, cute small houses along the canals, definitely not made for today’s modern traffic. Beautiful house fronts and few modern conveniences. Food was easy to find, overnight accommodation remained difficult to find throughout most of the 15 days it took me to hike the route. The route between IJlst and Balk was truly boring, nothing but a long straight paved bike path. However, all part of the ‘fun’.

Finally, on the 5th day the terrain (briefly) changed, from wide open green spaces to forests and different vegetation because the heavy clay that is predominant in Friesland (and most of the western and northern part of the Netherlands) changed to sand for just a short section of the route. A nice change from the wide open spaces. And a nice change from the hard wind that I had been fighting for the last several days. No rain, but boy, that wind was trying to push me back most of the day. Finally after the sandy part around Gaasterland, the trail turned to the north and I had the wind in the back most of the time. Now the trail ran along the shore of the IJsselmeer, the former Zuiderzee. I hiked through some of the prettiest cities the entire route had to offer, Stavoren, Workum, Bolsward and Hindelopen. After those the trail moved back inland and Franeker was the next city. It is famous for the 300 year old planetarium, the oldest still in operation planetarium in the world. That was well worth the visit.IMG_0134

After Franeker the trail took on its rather monotonous character again, nothing but cows, agriculture and huge wealthy farms. Three hiking days to get from Franeker to the11th of the cities: Dokkum. As I mentioned before, my dad had skated this tour 5 times in his life. I carried one of his medals with me the entire way and I wanted to experience this route because he had done it, albeit on skates. I knew it would not be the most beautiful route, but I did want to somehow experience something similar to what he had done 75-100 years ago. On the last day I walked into Leeuwarden and ended up in jail again. 🙂

There are definitely nicer, prettier long distance hikes in The Netherlands, the Drenthe path, Pieterpad, Graafschapspad to name a few, but I just had to do this one for the reason I explained before. All together a great experience, but once was enough.